One simple addition to eLearning videos can improve learner engagement with and comprehension of the material, as well as increasing learners’ focus while viewing the videos. It’s closed captioning.

Many eLearning developers make two critical errors in the way they think about closed captions: They see captioning only as an accessibility aid. And they assume that, since they have no deaf learners, they do not need to implement captions. Actually, make that three errors: Many developers also believe that, if they ever “needed to,” they could easily add captioning later.

Research around how people use closed captioning with eLearning videos or TV-watching debunks the first two errors, showing that the primary reasons people use captions have nothing to do with hearing loss!

A 2006 UK study of television viewers found that 80 percent of the TV viewers who regularly used captioning had no hearing impairment. They told researchers that the captions helped them focus on and better understand the shows they were watching.

A national study of US college students found similar uses for captioning. Even though this study looked at higher-ed students, and much of the research around the cost of retrofitting eLearning has been conducted at universities, the findings are relevant to eLearning developers in any environment, particularly where adult learners’ responses can be separated from the larger pool of students.

Corporate eLearning developers should pay particular attention to how adult learners in the university study regarded captioning: 62 percent of adult learners said that they find captioning “very” or “extremely” helpful when they view eLearning videos; 66 percent of learners for whom English is a second language agreed. Only 1.4 percent of respondents said that captioning was not at all helpful to them; 71 percent of the students surveyed, across all ages, said they used captioning at least occasionally.

When asked why they used captions, the most popular reason was to help learners focus, a response chosen by nearly half of the 2,124 respondents. Helping them to retain information was a close second. Using captions to help overcome difficulty hearing was a very distant sixth place, chosen by only 288 respondents! (Respondents could indicate multiple reasons for using captions.) Other uses included compensating for poor audio quality, using the eLearning videos in an environment where using the audio would be difficult, helping learners comprehend vocabulary used in the eLearning, and aiding them in understanding a presenter with a strong accent.

Free-text comments from several students mentioned that getting information in different ways helped them learn. These learners’ responses are supported by science that shows that people remember information better when it is presented in multiple modalities. [Read more about multimodal learning in “Capture Learners’ Attention with Multimodal eLearning.”] It’s also one of the principles of universal design, which aims to make products, environments, and communication usable by everyone.

Retrofitting existing content may be unworkable—or expensive

What about that third error, the belief that it is simple to “retrofit” existing eLearning to add accessibility features if a learner requests an accommodation? That approach got some universities into hot water; Harvard and MIT are currently being sued over eLearning that lacks captions, and several universities have settled lawsuits over inaccessible eLearning. Since many corporations do not face legal requirements to make all learning accessible, the argument for waiting until it’s “needed” could seem tempting outside of the higher-education arena. But modifying eLearning in any environment is a headache—a potentially expensive headache. 

The GOALS Project and the National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) published a case study that examined the cost of retrofitting college distance-learning content to make it accessible. They found costs ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars per course, depending on what needed to be done. Courses that included video that needed captioning were considered moderate to complex and cost far more to retrofit than simple, short, text-based courses that required only small changes, such as descriptive text for images.

A second GOALS case study that specifically addressed captioning looked at the cost of captioning all of a college’s eLearning. The case study estimated a cost per minute ranging from $1.50 to $2. While it might be possible to find captioning services in that price range, most professional captioning vendors charge between $3 and $10 per minute of video, although those rates frequently include both captioning and full transcripts.

Besides the actual cost of captioning, additional staff time is required to identify which eLearning courses have videos, send the videos to the contractor, and integrate the videos with the captions back into the eLearning courses.

To be fair, building in captioning during eLearning development is not free. An eLearning developer or a private captioning vendor still has to create the captions. However, integrating these costs into course development spreads them out over time, as eLearning modules are created, rather than incurring a large, unexpected cost at the time a learner requests accommodation—and avoids delaying a learner’s training.

But all of that sidesteps the point: Not all learners who would benefit from captions have disabilities or are willing to request accommodation. Who could benefit? Any employee who:

  • Is easily distracted
  • Is struggling with new work-related vocabulary
  • Is an English learner
  • Works in a noisy environment or one where playing audio is impractical
  • Happens to be an adult learner

The bottom line is, closed captioning could benefit any or all learners. And who doesn’t want learners to increase their focus and engagement with eLearning? The catch is, eLearning developers can’t know what difference captions will make for learners until they implement captions in their eLearning.


Linder, Katie. Student Uses and Perceptions of Closed Captions and Transcripts: Results from a national study. Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit. October 2016.

Rowland, Cyndi, Linda Goetze, and Jonathan Whiting. “GOALS Cost Case Study: Costs of web accessibility in higher education.” GOALS Project (Gaining Online Accessible Learning through Self-Study). December 2014.

UK Office of Communications (Ofcom). Television access services: Review of the Code and guidance. March 2006.